By Doreen Leggett
At 4:30 am the Chatham Fish Pier had been awake for a few hours, but the town was still quiet as a cameraman and television series host strode down a metal gangplank that led to fishing vessel Noah II.
“I’m just going to grab a survival suit,” said Captain Doug Feeney as he jumped off his boat.
He shook hands with Christopher Perera, scanning the pier for good shots, and Jadar Nygaard, who has a background in commercial fishing.
“Drop me in the water,” The Talking Heads’ version of “Take Me to the River” intoned from speakers on the boat as the two climbed aboard.
“Make yourself comfortable,” Feeney called over his shoulder.
Feeney, who has been fishing for more than 20 years, didn’t think twice about the irony of the song and the survival suit errand; Perera and Nygaard appreciated the juxtaposition. As Perera, who got his start at the Cape’s Channel 11, filmed a lone dory man rowing out to his boat in the light of the moon, they talked about their new project.
Their series spotlights commercial fishermen, some of the last of the hunters, working a dangerous job.
They were going out with Feeney to get a sense of the small boat fishery. A Rhode Island dragger fisherman, Chris Adams, had called John Pappalardo, head of the Fishermen’s Alliance, for a referral. Pappalardo knows Feeney is at ease with a camera, having had videographers, including a team from National Geographic, film on his boat a handful of times.
“I want to educate the layman consumer about what really goes into catching their seafood,” Feeney said, “show them this is what we go through to get fish, quality fish, for you.”
This December day was one of the last Feeney would be able to fish for mackerel, a small bright-bellied fish with a brocade back.
“The water temperature is 47, if it drops below 45 the season is pretty much over. They disappear,” Feeney said.
Feeney had skipped a few days of fishing because the price was too low to even consider heading out.
Today was not much different, but different enough.
“We’re getting 25 cents,” Feeney said, silver earring catching the deck lights. “It’s not great, 95 percent of the stuff is going for bait.”
Feeney had had enough of talking on the dock. He needed to get to the grounds, about an hour’s steam away.
“I really do need to leave at dark,” he said, soon navigating over the infamous Chatham Bar.
“The sun keeps them away,” guessed Nygaard, who has the chiseled look of a television star and easy demeanor of a born interviewer.
Feeney nodded. “Everything has to be as stealth as possible.”
Mackerel is a six-week season, which starts in November and wraps up before the Christmas decorations go up. Unlike other fisheries like monkfish, mackerel doesn’t require a dayboat to spend 16 or 18 hours far offshore. Sometime Feeney can see Nauset Beach in Orleans when he’s fishing.
There is a spring fishery for the forage fish, but mackerel is desired in the fall. That’s when the fish are fat, plus the catch fills a void between other fisheries.
Lower fuel costs and the shorter time commitment also help. Feeney estimates it costs about $600 or $700 to get away from the dock and he doesn’t require expensive permits or leased quota.
Feeney fishes with hooks that spread apart on long lines with lures. The line is then cranked up and the small fish come up toward the deck, hit a pair of upright rollers and fall into a tote. Feeney has two reels.
“My best day so far is 10,000 pounds,” he said, adding he needs 5000 pounds to offset costs and make money.
Nygaard, who has own shellfish company, knows about margins. He nodded in understanding.
Feeney stopped at a traditionally good spot and he and his crew member, Dan Goncalves, lowered the weighted lines into the sea.
Soon enough they were cranking up a smattering of fish, but many of the lures were empty.
Goncalves checked the fish finder, seeing a solid red line that screams mackerel. But they weren’t biting.
“Your whole machine can be red from top to bottom and still you won’t catch a single thing,” Feeney said.
So Feeney steamed on, looking for not only the telltale blast of red, but the right depth. Goncalves watched the fishfinder and relayed information. He is young and loves being on the water, and this fishery is easier for him than gillnetting, which requires him to do a lot more running around.
“It’s fun,” he said. “It feels right being out here.”
This time Feeney hit the school perfectly; both he and Nygaard brought up fish after fish after fish. The sound of metal clanging as the fish flipped off the rollers was reminiscent of wind chimes.
Nygaard grinned. He understands why fishermen suffer through bad days to experience the pure joy of seeing fish after fish spin up.
But soon the fish stopped. Feeney moved on, spot after spot, but the pickings were slim.
“You are stuck out here until we catch 5,000 pounds. I don’t care if it’s a week,” he said with a grin.
“Is there a dance I can do?” Nygaard joked.
Feeney took it in stride. He has been doing this for decades.
He grew up in Yarmouthport. At 19, he was into snowboard racing in New Hampshire. He had a white Mohawk and one day, while lying down, he burned himself on the forehead with a cigarette. When he looked in the mirror the combination of the hair, the burn, and the lifestyle was too much: he signed up for the army.
When he got out he ended up in Chatham where he had extended family and started musseling. Soon he was fishing year-round; with Bill Amaru for three or four years, with both Timmy and Matt Linnell, Greg Connors, and then he started to captain boats owned by other fishermen, such as Charlie Dodge.
“Eventually I said, ‘It’s my turn,” Feeney said.
He started gillnetting but as he has cycled through boats – this is his tenth – the industry changed.
“You have to be able to do three fisheries today to survive,” Feeney said.
That’s where mackerel comes in.
Nygaard remembered how popular the bony fish once was. His ancestors were from Norway and those fish in tomato sauce were a staple of his youth.
He, and others, believe once people taste them they will be hooked again.
Feeney has been trying different ways to get mackerel to a wider market. He has learned Ikejime, which is the Japanese method of inserting a wire into the hindbrain of the fish, killing it quickly and preserving the quality of the meat.
He grabbed a mackerel from the tote and quickly killed the fish, very much enjoyed raw.
“They are a great sushi fish,” Nygaard said. “It gives real credence to the statement that one man’s bait is another man’s sushi.”
The advance work by Nygaard and Perera paid off (probably more than Feeney’s day of fishing). Based on the promise of initial footage, 5 Speed Entertainment signed a deal with The Discovery Channel to kick off the first season of “Fish Hunter” by November and December.